"There are many reasons for this," explained Laurian J. Unnevehr,
a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer
Economics. "In essence, the market is working because the
private sector has become increasingly vigilant. There are
systems of management and quality certification in place.
"And, importantly, liability concerns have made importers and
firms that distribute the products proactive."
Unnevehr is studying food imports, specifically the reasons
that products are refused entry by the Food and Drug
Administration. She also compares the FDA's reasons for refusal
with those issued by the European Union in its system. The
purpose of the research is to identify systematic failures in
food safety control that might pose risks to consumers.
"The FDA approaches the inspections with a risk-based
system," she explained. "There is no way with its resources that
the agency could inspect every shipment of fruits, vegetables
and other foodstuffs that enter the country. Instead, they
identify high-risk products and sources through a system of
'alerts' that allows them to detain products without an actual
Those "alerts" are based on problems that have already
Many Americans are probably unaware of the wide variety food
products that enter the country and end up on their tables.
"The biggest growth categories for food imports are seafood,
fruits and vegetables," Unnevehr said. "More than one-half of
the seafood consumed in the United States is imported. Seafood
imports are the area where some of the most immediate risks
occur. Often they originate in low-income countries which lack
infrastructure for effective sanitation and transportation."
Food product refusals differ between the United States and
the European Union, largely because each reflects a different
system of regulation and standards.
The most important hazards triggering FDA refusals are
microbial contamination, such as salmonella in seafood,
pesticide residues in vegetables and sanitary violations in
several product categories. In the EU, the top reasons are
mycotoxins on nuts, chemical contaminants such as additives and
food dyes, microbiological contamination, and veterinary drug
residues. These reflect stricter EU standards that trigger
hazard alerts more often for mycotoxins, drug residues and food
It is also important to note that refusal of a product does
not necessarily mean it represents a danger to humans.
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"A lot of the refusals for vegetable imports involve pesticide
residues," Unnevehr explained. "Sometimes vegetables are refused for
having residue of pesticides not registered in the United States.
One example would be snow peas from Guatemala. There is a pesticide
used there that is not used in the United States because we don't
grow snow peas here. There is no reason to register a pesticide that
is not used in this country; hence, those snow peas can be stopped.
It does not necessarily mean that the residue poses a significant
risk to human health, however."
Unnevehr refers to these situations as "disconnects" in the
system -- things that represent no health risk but reflect a
difference between production requirements in two countries.
"Most FDA refusals are for violations that do not involve
imminent health risks to consumers," she said. "Or, in some cases,
they involve products that are not widely consumed, such as tamarind
or banana blossoms. Most of us are not eating some of the products
where a large number of problems are found."
Still, incidents like recent problems with pet food ingredients
that resulted in several pet deaths have raised public attention and
concern about the amount of food being imported and the controls
over food safety.
Unnevehr's research has not concluded, so she isn't prepared to
make recommendations about what, if anything needs to be done. But
one thing is clear to her -- context is important.
"The number one country in terms of the number of violations for
fruits and vegetables imported to the United States is Mexico," she
said. "But that is deceiving because Mexico is one of the largest
exporters to the United States.
"If you look at Mexican import refusals per $1 million of
product, you find that its rate is only 0.18. Two other nations, for
example, that have a lower level of imports have a much higher rate
of refusals per $1 million. Nigeria and Jordan have rates in excess
of 100. India, which is a major exporter of food to the United
States, has a rate of 16 per $1 million and China's rate is 0.64 per
FDA refusals, she adds, are also based on factors other than food
safety concerns. For instance, products can be refused for a dirty
appearance or if they are mislabeled.
"Mislabeling is the reason for about one-third of the refusals,"
she noted. "Such products do not necessarily post immediate risks to
health and safety."
[Text from file received from
the University of